The most memorable thing about this concert for me was the sheer glory of the Philharmonia’s playing. Whether it was in the winning, sprightly Mozart overture, or in all the glinting colours of Peter Eötvös’ new work, or in the full and rich late-Romantic orchestral tones of the Bruckner, these musicians, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, were magnificent. The concert celebrated one of the simplest of musical ideas: the first three notes of the scale, do-re-mi. In Eötvös’ violin concerto, not merely was it the title of the work and (almost) an anagram of the name Midori, its dedicatee, but the three notes pervaded the music throughout, coming at you from all directions, and occasionally as sudden orchestral shouts punctuating the progress of the piece. And in Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, the great climax of the Adagio takes those three notes to an imaginative summit of blazing gold such as one would not have thought that so simple an idea was capable.
The little Mozart overture to the Singspiel Der Schauspieldirektor made for a joyful opener and, had all the percussionists made it promptly on stage, that atmosphere might carried us nicely over into the tingling triangles that open DoReMi. But there was some delay before they turned up, and the magic had been replaced by a touch of unease that something was wrong. Not to worry: once they arrived all was well and Eötvös’ new work was revealed as a piece of manifold beauties. It was a work full of enchanting events, and Midori played with infectious conviction, the first part developing from its display of colourful fragments to an extended rhapsodic line – suddenly to be closed by three pizzicato chords. There was an orchestral section where the rushing strings sounded like burning fire, and in the latter part of the work Midori played very expressively above a meandering drone from the first viola. There were marvellous sounds added from the tubular bells and other percussion – and then suddenly, it was all over! So it left an impression of a strange and haunting beauty, though not a great sense of direction, or that the total might be greater than the parts. In the context of this concert, the ultimate destination of the exploration of do-re-mi was left for after the interval.
It was appropriate programming to have Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony as a final act of this Proms season’s celebration of Wagner, and few days after the Hallé’s performance of Parsifal. While writing the symphony Bruckner attended the first two performances of Parsifal in July 1882, and he attended many, many other performances over the next ten years. He held the work and its composer in utmost veneration. Griefstricken when Wagner died in February 1883, Bruckner fashioned a heartfelt funeral ode for the close of the Adagio of this symphony, a dirge for Wagner tubas followed by a desolate dialogue between first violins and solo woodwind. It was spellbinding to hear the Philharmonia under Salonen present the climax of the movement and the dark farewell to Wagner that follows it. The layering of the sound as the build up the climax began, the violins rising scales barely audible at first but getting inexorably stronger, the Wagner tubas magnificent and absolutely secure, the steady addition of the rest of the brass and woodwind adding volume and brighter colour, all of this was consummately achieved and capped by a theatrical clash of large cymbals (which may or may not have been Bruckner’s idea). Dramatic drumrolls gave added turbulence to the storm.
Salonen had obviously given considerable thought to how best to present the work. There was considerable intervention into tempo, highlighted expressive gestures, occasional added drama beyond that which the composer probably envisaged. The Scherzo began fast and then accelerated to very fast for each fortissimo climax, unmarked but all very exciting, though the Trio at the heart of it was given a beautifully simple and directly communicative rendition. For the third theme of the finale, the heavy brass of the Philharmonia on absolutely scintillating form, Salonen had them play it out with portentous slowness, then speed up in its continuation. Although there were those amongst my colleagues in the audience who declared this to be a disaster, I thought it had the dual effect of giving both weight and the illusion of greater complexity to the structure, a way of making the finale substantial enough to balance two large-scale earlier movements – and the sheer crunching sound of it was fantastic!
This really was virtuoso orchestral playing and virtuoso conducting, and there must have been some very effective rehearsing so that Salonen’s special touches could be realised. It created a variety of Bruckner performance that positions the work rather in the world of Richard Strauss, with opulent sound and beautifully moulded phrasing. It was certainly some of the best played and most beautifully played Bruckner I have heard, and was never for a moment dull, but I am not sure that this was a performance that plumbed the profounder depths that this music has within its scope.